Wordless documentation?

Subject: Wordless documentation?
From: "Hart, Geoff" <Geoff-H -at- MTL -dot- FERIC -dot- CA>
To: "TECHWR-L" <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- raycomm -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 20 Feb 2002 08:47:18 -0500

Jim Madden wonders: <<We are a durable goods manufacturer. All of our
manuals are printed. I'm trying to find information on creating wordless
instructions to replace text in our manuals. I have seen numerous examples
for relatively simple tasks like changing a printer cartridge, but the level
of complexity is much greater when it comes to putting our metal cutting
systems together.>>

Although a picture may indeed be worth 1000 words, the opposite is sometimes
true: some things simply cannot be adequately conveyed using pictures alone.
My advice is to use pictures to minimize the amount of translation you must
do, but not to try to eliminate words entirely. Among other things, modern
readers are so proficient with words and so inexperienced with parsing
images that a purely graphical approach to documentation is not likely to be
efficient for the reader, even if it saves you a couple bucks.

As for examples, plastic scale models (airplanes, cars, etc.) and Ikea
assembly instructions are generally pretty good. But I've seen enough
problems with these that I'd strongly recommend testing your attempts at
purely visual instructions before you commit to this approach--and ideally,
testing them in each market to be sure the graphics communicate equally
effectively for all clients. Although you might save a fair bit in initial
translation costs, you might lose more than you saved if you unsatisfied
clients who can't install or use your products or even injured clients who
turn around and sue you for unclear safety instructions.

<<What type of instructions should we try and make wordless. Are there

I'm not aware of any standards, and even if there were, you'd still have to
confront problems with languages such as Hebrew in which the flow of
information goes right to left, not left to right as in English. Although
you can partially solve this problem using numerals (1, 2, ...) to
communicate the sequence, the result still isn't as effective as
understanding the differences between linguistic groups and designing
specifically with those differences in mind.

As a general rule, graphics work best for showing overall visual context and
specific details of spatial relationships; words work best where precise
meanings are important or where the concept is abstract. When you do create
graphics, carefully choose between literal representations (photos), which
show so many details that they can potentially lead to ambiguous
interpretations, and abstract representations (simplified line drawings),
which simplify the content so much that only one or relatively few
interpretations are possible. Line drawings are generally more effective in
technical communication for the latter reason, but skillfully posed
photographs supplemented by guides to interpretation (e.g., arrows) can work

--Geoff Hart, FERIC, Pointe-Claire, Quebec
geoff-h -at- mtl -dot- feric -dot- ca
"User's advocate" online monthly at

"When ideas fail, words come in very handy."--Goethe

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